It’s been a while since I felt like I had much to say on this blog that wasn’t pretty much a rehash of things I’ve said before. Even now, when I do find myself moved to post, I know that some of what I say will intersect with a number of previous posts. More specifically, I’ve made the point many times that mysticism isn’t just a way of thinking about things. There are concepts about mysticism, and concepts that flow out of mystical states of consciousness, but these concepts are all just images and words that are, at best, pointing toward something ineffable that must be directly experienced in order to actually be known as fully as possible.
In the Christian tradition, as well as in many others, the quintessential mystical experience is one of union with the Great Mysterious One that we English speaking Christians call God. The first keyword here is experience, which means it is directly perceived, not theorized, not hypothesized, not abstracted, not guessed at, not taken as a matter of faith, not fantasized, but actually encountered. The second keyword here is union, which is oneness, not closeness, not seeing, not hearing, not feeling, but awareness of being one with God. Even at that, there are problems, because logically speaking, and as attested by those who actually know, such union eliminates the duality of the experiencer and that which is experienced, and thus the word experience can itself be misleading to some extent.
So, in this particular context, any words one has about mysticism that aren’t rooted in that person having actually directly known oneness with God are somewhat like a person with monochromatic vision talking about color. Of course this does not immediately invalidate everything such a person has to say about mysticism. In fact, one of the most widely used college textbooks on the subject, Mysticism and Philosophy, was written by a man, Walter Stace, who openly acknowledged that he had never directly known the kind of experience he was talking about. I highly respect him for that acknowledgment, and for the way he carefully attended to the testimony of those who asserted they did know that experience. It enabled him to form a very clear conceptualization of mystical experience and how it typically affects the human being who has known it. Naturally, his work is not above criticism in a number of ways, but it has nonetheless stood the test of time (nearly 60 years now) for those who have used it as a whetstone for sharpening their own thoughts on the subject.
Over a year ago, I had a conversation about the problem of speaking about mystical experience with a friend who reads this blog. Having provisionally accepted my argument, he then essentially, although quite nicely, challenged me to put up or shut up. And he not only wanted me to state whether or not I had actually known mystical union, but he wanted me to try to describe the event as clearly as possible. He argued that without such personal testimonies, many if not most people would never be inspired to open themselves to such possibilities. He might be right about that.
Over the years I’ve been asked a number of times to speak about the most profound spiritual experiences I’ve known. Sometimes I share them, sometimes I don’t. There have been times when I have spoken of them anonymously. Each time this has been asked of me, or I have thought about sharing something, I have taken time to reflect on my motives and intentions. I do this in part because I’m not trying to hold myself up as a paragon of spiritual illumination, let alone mystical attainment, or whatever you might call it. Yet another concern is with giving the impression that without such experiences one is less of a human being, less valuable, or less wise in some way. Another aspect of these reflections has been knowing the temptation to revel in some degree of spiritual admiration or esteem that might be accorded to me by those who want such an experience for themselves. It’s also possible to unintentionally lead people to believe that they must do exactly what I have done if they want such mystical knowledge. All of these possibilities, and others, have been among the reasons some traditions warn their adherents to only speak of their most profound spiritual experiences with their teachers or perhaps their closest fellow travelers.
All that being said, I have decided to share an account of the “experience” in which, for the first time that I recall, mystical union was fully and directly known. Maybe it will prove helpful to someone.
I had been practicing it,
and so recognized its emergence.
One of my meditation teachers
was sitting and chatting with Carl Jung,
as if in some hip talk show
from the early 1970s.
My teacher asked me,
“What do you see
when you close your eyes?”
“Whatever is in my imagination.”
“What if you don’t imagine anything?”
So I closed my eyes, and….
What shall I call it now, after the fact?
Darkness, because there was no light?
Silence, because there were no sounds?
Emptiness, because there were no thoughts?
Nothingness, because there were no things?
Stillness, because there was no movement?
Timeless, because there was no change?
There was no longer any ‘me,’
neither memory nor anticipation,
but, there was…. What?
Perhaps, but if so,
then presence without context,
neither location nor duration.
Perhaps, but if so,
then consciousness without process,
neither reflection nor projection.
Perhaps, but if so,
then oneness without dimension,
neither extension nor limitation.
Suddenly a blast of golden amber light!
It filled the void like a flood of bright buzzing honey,
and with it an awareness without words
that ‘it’ was ‘this,’
all of it,
all of this.
The unseen eye that saw it all
evolved into the unspoken ‘I,’
filled with the unthought knowledge
and the unevoked bliss
of being and becoming.
‘Me’ returned with perception
of a sound from ‘behind,’
and so I turned to again find
my teacher and Carl Jung,
still sitting but now returning my smile.
Overjoyed, I softly said,
“Thank you. It’s been a long time.”
“Sometimes it happens that way,”
my teacher replied with a shrug.
Carl stoically nodded.
Then came the willing return
to ordinary wakefulness,
with the ineffable Whatness
of that mysterious non-imagining
as the point within the golden circle
of a lifetime of reflections.